The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 7

Last updated on January 6, 2024.

Hanging Shirts in Ombre order, from reds on left, oranges center, and yellows on right.
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash.

One of the best ways to fight fast fashion and textile waste is to make your existing wardrobe last longer. We can do this by washing our clothes less, but better, and by repairing and mending. “According to the EPA, for every 2 million tons of textiles we keep in circulation and out of landfills, we can reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking 1 million cars off the road,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. “In fact, reusing a ton of textiles saves twice as much carbon as recycling a ton of plastic, one of the most commonly recycled materials.”1

But what else can we do?

Stop Shopping!

“Today’s rapid cycle of production, buying, and disposal of clothing impairs our ability to feel satisfied and connected with our wardrobes. It’s time for a new, slower approach to repairing clothes and to cherishing what we have.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!2

Stop shopping. Or at least shop much less. Since most of us overbuy, we should buy less clothing going forward.

You don’t have to be a minimalist, but you don’t need closets and dressers and shelves overflowing with clothing. You can’t possibly wear all of it. Calculate how much clothing you need by how often you do laundry. For most people, this is one or two week’s worth. Then, account for the few special pieces you need – a black dress or a suit, or maybe you wear uniforms to work – it will be unique for everyone. Own only the amount of workout clothing you actually work out in. Don’t keep clothes that don’t fit (unless you regularly fluctuate in sizes). Limit excess of all types of clothing.

Subconsciously, or maybe even consciously, clothing represents who we are or the person we want others to perceive us as. Wear the clothing that makes you feel good. But fight against the influence of advertising, trends, and fast fashion sales. As Dana Thomas in Fashionopolis wrote, “[Fashion] preys on our insecurities and our increasingly short attention spans. We are prone to a barrage of fashion images –  on social media, on television, on billboards, in the press – begging us, taunting us to indulge in what one executive described as ‘temporary treasure.'”3 Be selective and intentional about the pieces you purchase.

“Volume is what gave birth to sweatshops. Volume is what makes fast fashion so profitable. Volume is what’s stuffing our closets. Volume is what’s rotting in our landfills.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis4

Women's outfit lying on white background: white blouse, blue jeans, red and white striped t-shirt, and red shoes.
Photo by Junko Nakase on Unsplash.

We Can Spend Our Money Differently

“The number one reason we buy what we don’t wear is because it’s on sale or it’s so cheap that we’re willing to overlook flaws.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet5 

Don’t buy a $5 shirt because it is cheap. Buy a shirt because it feels good on your body. Embrace slow fashion, which is the idea that a thoughtful and intentional wardrobe greatly reduces environmental impact. It is the opposite of excessive production, overcomplicated supply chains, and mindless consumption.

“Most of our clothes are bought on impulse; we’re buying items without wider thought of how they fit into our lives or our wardrobes.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet6 

Buy Quality, Not Quantity

Buy more classic pieces and less trendy items. This will allow you to mix and match more easily and allow you to wear your clothes much, much longer. Buy fewer, higher-quality pieces and buy second-hand when possible. In The Conscious Closet, Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that you should be skeptical of cheap and heavily discounted items. She says to try everything on because it takes more time and hassle to return an item than to just try it on in the first place. Buy one or two quality pieces at a time instead of trying to revamp your whole closet in one shopping trip. Plan ahead, and hold out for those great items instead of settling for items that are just okay.7 

“Consumption has accelerated to such a furious pace that most of us don’t thoroughly consider what we purchase.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend8

Cline offered these tips to identify quality clothing items:

Study the sewing and construction details of your own clothes that have lasted a long time. Look at your grandmother’s clothing or at clothes in vintage shops, as clothes made decades ago were not meant to be thrown away.

Check out a variety of brands and stores.

Look at men’s clothes, which are typically made better than women’s.

Quality includes good fabric, construction, fit, and a warranty. Usually the better the guarantee or warranty, the better the quality. “Nudie Jeans, a sustainable denim brand, offers free repairs on jeans for life, for example. Patagonia offers repairs, replacements, or refunds for damaged products or if the product simply doesn’t live up to expectations.” Other brands offer repairs within one or two years of purchase.9 

“Quality clothing is made to last, wear well, and look good over time.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet10 

Beware of Outlets and Off-Price Stores

There has been a drop in quality at factory outlets since the 2000s. These stores used to sell name-brand items with slight defects and imperfections, or overstock. But now most outlet stores have a special line of lower quality items, made just for those stores. It is the same for off-price stores such as T.J. Maxx, Ross Dress for Less, Marshalls, etc. These stores carry clothing without hems, fabrics that shed fibers in your hands when you touch them, and no regularity in sizing.

“Off-price stores and outlets were once a reliable way to land well-made and name-brand products at a discount, but no longer. Today, many sell a lot of factory rejects or canceled orders – the products that should have never made it to a store in the first place…[they are] manufactured exclusively for these stores and [are] intentionally mislabeled as discounted.” -Elizabeth L. Cline11

Circular clothing racks of shirts, organized by color.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.

Buy from Responsible Brands

Research which brands are ethical and sustainable, or follow sustainable fashion writers like Elizabeth L. Cline to get the information. Or look for brands that use recycled textiles to make new clothing, such as Patagonia and Osom Brand.

Focus on what is most important to you. Sophie Benson, author of Sustainable Wardrobe, wrote, “Just as style is personal, so too are our moral drivers. For instance, I’m vegan, therefore I wouldn’t buy new leather. You might appreciate the longevity of leather but want to ensure it’s vegetable-tanned. One person might want to do their best to keep clothes in circulation by shopping exclusively secondhand via charity shops, another might be dead set on supporting independent brands who manufacture small batches at every opportunity. The better you understand your own principles and priorities, the easier it becomes to know whether a brand or product lives up to them.”12

Affordability

Sometimes buying higher quality or ethical/sustainable means the monetary cost is higher. Conscious fashion brands are mainly independent startups and smaller companies.13 So those companies have a higher overhead because they use responsibly sourced fabrics, little or no chemicals, and pay proper wages to workers. See Additional Resources below for a few brands that have good labor standards and sustainable practices, as well as an article on sustainable brands by budget.

But affordability is an issue. While it’s easy to say ‘just buy higher quality pieces’ or ‘purchase from sustainable fashion companies,” the reality of that is often difficult. What author Leah Thomas calls ‘the elephant in the room’: not everyone can affordably access sustainable clothing. Sustainable clothing often costs far more than the $10 shirt at H&M. Thomas argues that many sustainable fashion brands also do not offer plus-sized clothing even though over 60% of American women wear a size 14 or larger.14

Second hand shop clothing racks, lots of colorful article with a black short sleeved top on a headless mannequin in the foreground.
Image by Daniel Kapelrud from Pixabay.

Second-Hand Clothing

Affordability is why second-hand clothing is key: you can find higher-quality pieces without paying the high retail price. There are thousands of thrift stores, yard sales, and second-hand shops everywhere, as well as online stores.

Buying second-hand is always better for the environment and much more affordable.

There are also consignment shops in most areas. Just search “consignment near me” on the internet. These shops can vary from children’s clothing to boutique clothing to upscale women’s wear. Items at consignment shops have been inspected and vetted more thoroughly than items at thrift stores, and are sometimes cleaned or repaired before being sold.15

Used clothing is also all over the internet. Sites like eBay, Poshmark, The RealReal, Mercari, ThreadUp, and OfferUp are just a few places where you can find any type of clothing you want.*

Red-haired woman shopping at a thrift store, looking through clothing racks with other items in background, such as hats and framed art. Yellow tint to photo.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.

Stop ‘Wardrobing’

‘Wardrobing’ refers to buying the same item in multiple sizes when shopping online, and returning the ones that don’t fit. Now, it would help if companies would standardize sizes, especially in women’s clothes. But try using the size charts and measurement guides on clothing sites when they are offered.

The reason is that returned clothing sometimes gets landfilled. “Reverse logistics -which includes things like opening returned packages, inspecting returned items, steaming or cleaning them, adding them back into the system and repackaging them – can be time-consuming and costly, so many brands simply cut their losses and dispose of returned items. In the US, 2.3 billion kilograms (5 billion pounds) in weight of returned goods ends up in landfill each year, creating 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions.”16 This is a poor practice that companies should be barred from, but let’s do what we can to reduce returns in the meantime.

Build a Capsule Wardrobe

A capsule wardrobe is a curated but versatile wardrobe. As Elizabeth L. Cline wrote, “What defines a capsule wardrobe is not its smallness but the versatility and intentionality of its contents.17

Courtney Carver’s Project 333 is a great capsule wardrobe plan! It embraces minimalism and stress reduction, while fighting fast fashion and supporting sustainability.

“You get to wear your favorite things every day.” -Courtney Carver18

Renting

Renting is another viable solution. According to Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis, the average professional woman spends $3,000 or more per year on buying clothing. “Renting fashion could change the entire shape of the apparel industry. Imagine if that $3,000-a-year clothing budget was spent on renting instead of buying. Fewer clothes would be made, and what is out there could be circulated more, tossed less.” Rent the Runway is a well-known example.19 See Additional Resources below for an article covering several rental subscription services.

Rack of formal gowns in multiple colors, with sparkles and sequins.
Photo by form PxHere.

Consume Less

We need companies to produce less clothing, and we need to consume less. What changes can you make to reduce clothing waste?

So slow down, buy less, buy natural, buy better, buy second-hand. You’ll save money, time, and the environment. Please share and subscribe, and thank you for reading!

“If I had to give one piece of advice on what turned my wardrobe into a Slow Fashion wardrobe, I’d say ‘pause.’ If we could just pause our shopping habits, slow down our consumption, and pay attention to the clothes we bring into our homes, we’d collectively make a huge shift.” –Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend20

Wooden clothing rack with clothes in whites, reds, pinks and turquoises, with a shorter black empty clothing rack in front of it with hangers. Background wall is hunter green.
Photo by EVG Kowalievska on Pexels.

 

Additional Resources:

Here are a few conscious brands and related articles:

Eileen Fisher: Eileen Fisher produces 25% in the US and has living wages as part of its code of conduct.21 Their Renew program is a take-back and resell program. “Three-fourths of [the] garments are reconditioned with treatments like overdyeing with pomegranate or safflower to camouflage stains and embroidering with traditional Japanese Boro and sashiko stitching, which can hide, or highlight, tears and moth holes.”22*

Article, “The Pain of Progress: Our Renew Program Reaches 2 Million Garments,” by Kris Herndon, Eileen Fisher Journal, April 10, 2023.

Patagonia is a company that follows high standards for production, labor, employment, and environmental concerns. The company also buys, repairs, and resells its own brand of clothing and accessories.*

Reformation:  They are actively working toward a living wage for its Los Angeles workers. 23 Their “goal is to source 100% of our fabrics from recycled, regenerative, or renewable materials by 2025.”*

Elizabeth Suzann: This is a Nashville-based slow fashion brand that uses responsible materials and pays double the minimum wage in Tennessee.24*

Article, ” 99 Sustainable Fashion Brands By Budget (2023),” The Good Trade, October 3, 2023.

Article, “Thinking About Fashion Rentals? Consider These 7 Services,” by Alexis Bennett Parker, Vogue, January 12, 2023.

Article, “How To Thrift-Flip Your Wedding Dress,” canvasbridal.com, accessed January 6, 2024.

*I do not necessarily endorse these products and I do not get paid to mention them.

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 6

Many embroidery floss skeins in rainbow order, making a blank heart shape in the center.
Photo by Karly Santiago on Unsplash.

If you’ve been reading articles from my series about the clothing industry, then you probably want to know more about what you can do about fashion waste. The short answer is that first, you can take good care of the clothes you have by laundering them well and repairing them. Second, stop buying too much clothing – even when it’s a great deal! Try to buy only the pieces you really love and that fit well. Don’t just buy something because you found it on the clearance rack.

Globally, we have to stop the overproduction of clothing and fast fashion.

As Elizabeth L. Cline noted, in America, we spend more money on restaurants than we do on clothes. We don’t see any reason to spend more on fashion because of the availability of cheap clothes. “As any economist will tell you, cheaper prices stimulate consumption. And the current low rate of fashion has spurred a shopping free-for-all, where we are buying and hoarding roughly 20 billion garments per year as a nation…If we could only give up our clothing deals and steals, we might just see that there are far more fortifying, not to mention more flattering, ways of getting dressed.”1

“The most sustainable clothes are the ones already in your closet.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend2

Close-up of a white front-load washing machine, with a hand turning the dial.
Photo by rawpixel.com form PxHere.

Wash Your Clothes Less

Washing our clothes less makes them last much longer. It also reduces the number of microfibers, that is, microscopic pieces of plastic from synthetic clothing, that enter our water systems. You can wear some articles several times before you launder them unless you sweat or spill something on them. You can freshen your clothes without washing them, by hanging them in the bathroom during a shower or hanging them outside. Read “Make Your Clothes Last Longer with Good Laundry Habits” for laundry tips.

“Americans in particular overwash their clothing and rely on machine washing instead of steaming or airing out their clothes, which shortens the life span of what we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Concious Closet3 

Tan cardigan with white and yellow flower embroidery near shoulder.
Photo by Alex Baber on Unsplash.

Mending

“When you take the time and effort to repair or improve a garment, you will value it and, more importantly, enjoy wearing it.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!4

Mending can extend the life of your clothing and keep them out of the landfill. Learning basic sewing and embroidery is worth the effort because you can save money and protect the environment.

In her book, The Conscious Closet, Elizabeth L. Cline offered an entire chapter on how to perform basic repairs and instructions on several types of stitches without sewing skills or a sewing machine. A few common repairs include missing buttons, seam splits, loose stitching, applying patches, and darning socks. You can find tutorials for all of these in her book. Often you can find tutorials online for free, as well.

Cline also recommended using a fabric shaver to remove pills,5 which are the little bobbles of loose fibers that build up on your clothes. Sophie Benson, author of Sustainable Wardrobe, wrote that you can also reuse an old razor to remove pills. Just avoid pulling them off with your fingers because that can cause damage to the fabric.6

BEAUTURAL Fabric Shaver and Lint Remover, gray, showing the device and two blade attachments.
This is the fabric shaver I use and I’ve been happy with the results. This is not a paid promotion or affiliate product.

Tip: You can even find sewing materials and notions – and even sewing machines – at thrift stores and second-hand shops. You don’t necessarily have to pay retail for those things.

“Wear visibly mended clothes proudly. Visible mending is a great conversation starter, and a visibly mended garment is the perfect uniform for the reluctant activist because it does the heavy lifting for you. Whenever you wear something visibly mended and chat with someone about it, you’re raising awareness that mending is possible, it can be creative and colourful, and caring for our clothes is an important thing to do.” -Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald, Modern Mending7 

Tiny flower embroidery on denim, many colors, needle with light blue thread at center.
Photo by Barbara Krysztofiak on Unsplash.

“In repairing our clothes, we send a message. With each stitch we declare, ‘I value the people who made this, I value the natural resources that went into making it and I value the version of myself that chose it.’ ” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe8

Hire A Tailor

If you don’t want to learn basic sewing or don’t have the time, you can take your items to a tailor. This costs more but still extends the life of the clothing you already own. Sophie Benson wrote, “Both alterations and repairs should very much be seen as part and parcel of the maintenance of our clothes. Any action that keeps your clothes in wearable condition is classed as maintenance, and this includes things like lowering hems, taking in or letting out waistbands, altering silhouettes and replacing linings. You might be surprised what a tailor can do.”9

“Through mending we slow down consumption, extend the life of our garments, and increase resilience and technical skill…As we mend our textiles we work on an individual scale to mend overconsumption, fast fashion, and the unethical treatment of people and the planet.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend10

Reuse Old Clothes

You can reuse clothes for repair projects and even refashion them. You can also just find a way to reuse them around the house. “This is the way humans ‘recycled’ worn clothes for ages. Scrap denim is ideal for mending and patching…Cotton t-shirts make great cleaning cloths and rags. And worn or stained items and scuffed-up shoes are great to wear for yard work or other outdoor activities.”11 

You can cut off the sleeves of a long-sleeved shirt and make a tank top, or make jeans into shorts. This is especially true for children’s clothing! Other clothes can be repurposed into bags, dog toys, or pillows. Use your imagination! The internet abounds with inspirational ideas!

“Slow fashion is…saving up to buy fewer pieces of higher quality and keeping them for longer (or forever!); it’s shopping secondhand; it’s repairing instead of throwing away; it’s brands making to order to reduce waste; it’s local or small batch production; it’s personal style not trends; it’s releases once or twice per year instead of every week. It’s our way out of this mess.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe12

Wear Clothes Longer

This is the goal: To wear your existing clothing longer.

If you take good care of your clothes through good laundering and simple mending, your clothes will last a lot longer. This will save you money and time, and it is better for the environment. “According to Greenpeace, wearing your clothes for at least two years will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 24 percent.”13 We can all make a big impact when it comes to clothing.

“Mending, repairing, and caring for our clothes is the essence of sustainable fashion.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet14 

I hope this helps! Feel free to leave me a comment about your ideas for caring for or repairing clothing. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website of Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald, author of Modern Mending.

Reuse shop, FabScrap, “FABSCRAP diverts thousands of pounds of commercial textile waste from landfills every week. These pre-consumer materials are often in perfect condition.”

Responsibly sourced wool and knitting materials, Peace Fleece store.

Good on You website, evaluates the ethics and sustainability of fashion brands around the world.

See books on Mending in the footnotes or on my Books Page under “The Textile & Clothing Industry.”

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 3

Updated September 12, 2023.

Cotton flowers in field with blue sky background.
Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash.

Are synthetic or natural fabrics better for the environment? Natural fabrics fare better, but the overproduction of both types of fabrics is the problem. The way we carelessly disregard and dispose of our clothing is a  problem too, as was emphasized in Part 2 of this article series. Elizabeth L. Cline, an expert on fast fashion and sustainability in the apparel industry, says that asking which fabric is greenest is actually the wrong question. “We need to improve the sustainability of all the materials we wear.”1

Though we all need to reduce everything we consume, understanding the differences between synthetics and natural fabrics will benefit us as consumers. If we know where something came from, how it was sourced, and how it was created and turned into fashion, we can make better choices and value our clothing more.

Natural fabrics refer to those made from natural fibers sourced from plants or animals. Let’s start by taking a look at the natural fabrics that come from plant-based sources.

“We need to improve the sustainability of all the materials we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline

Clothing rack with many attractive colors, small chalkboard sign indicates they are on sale.
Photo by Megan Lee on Unsplash.

Cotton

Cotton is grown all over the world, and its production provides income for more than 250 million people. There are about 35 million hectares of cotton under cultivation in the world. But it requires a lot of water, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Water

Cotton production uses 3 percent of the entire world’s agricultural water supply.2 Some experts argue that cotton is the largest water user of all agricultural production combined.3

“As much as 2,168 gallons of water is required to grow the cotton in a single T-shirt…While water is plentiful in some cotton-growing areas, almost 60 percent of all cotton is grown in regions affected by water scarcity…And while cotton could be a major source of poverty alleviation in rural and poor areas, in many places it is exploitive instead.”4

In some areas, surface and ground waters are diverted to irrigate cotton fields. This leads to freshwater depletion for entire regions, including Pakistan’s Indus River Delta and Central Asia’s Aral Sea. About 97% of the water from the Indus River goes to crop production, including cotton.5 Worse, the Indus River, upon which millions of people rely, is badly polluted with chemicals and plastic.

The depletion of the Aral Sea is one major loss. A Soviet Union project that began in the 1960s diverted the feeding rivers away from the Aral Sea in an attempt to grow cotton and other crops in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This has almost drained the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world. That has caused the soil to become drier and saltier, and the dry soil creates dust storms. That dust is full of leftover pesticides and fertilizers, and people in those areas have significant reproductive issues, including miscarriages and malformations at birth. In addition, “Livelihoods, wildlife habitats, and fish populations have been decimated.”6

Aerial view: The Aral Sea in 1989 (left) vs. 2014 (right).
The Aral Sea in 1989 (left) vs. 2014 (right). Image by NASA and collage by Producercunningham on Wikimedia.

Chemicals

“Conventionally grown cotton requires the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers.”7

Cotton production requires about 220,000 tons of pesticides and 8.8 million tons of fertilizer yearly. “One-fifth of insecticides – and more than 10 percent of all pesticides – are devoted to the protection of conventional cotton.”8 Those pesticides are highly toxic to human workers and animals, and they pollute the environment. Industrial and agricultural chemical poisoning are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide.9 The World Health Organization classified 8 out of 10 of the US’s cotton pesticides as ‘hazardous.’10

Fertilizers that end up in waterways create nutrient pollution, meaning those excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) allow toxic algal blooms. Those deplete entire zones of oxygen, creating dead zones, which harm aquatic species and disrupt entire ecosystems. Fertilizers also contribute to greenhouse gases.11

Approximately 16% of all pesticides are used on cotton.12 Additionally, genetically modified crops, including cotton, have made crops toxic to common pests. This has reduced the use of pesticides but has not eliminated the need for them. “A large number of farmers have adopted genetically modified cotton seeds that include a gene protecting it from the herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup). That way, the fields can be sprayed with the herbicide when the plant is young, easily eliminating competition from weeds.”13 However, this has made farmers dependent on those specific seeds, which are made by the same company that makes the pesticides and herbicides.

Forced Labor

Uzbekistan, once one of the largest producers of cotton, used forced labor for cotton production until 2021.14 Today, China and India are the largest producers of cotton. Parts of China use forced labor and parts of India use child labor for cotton production. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the following countries also use child labor, forced labor, or both:15

                • Argentina
                • Azerbaijan
                • Benin
                • Brazil
                • Burkina Faso
                • Egypt
                • Kazakhstan
                • Kyrgyz Republic
                • Mali
                • Pakistan
                • Tajikistan
                • Turkey
                • Turkmenistan
                • Zambia

Soil Degradation

Cotton production severely degrades soil quality,16 because of the overuse of nitrogen-based mineral fertilizers. Cotton also causes soil erosion because of the large amounts of water it requires to grow.

Organic Cotton & Other Options

We can produce cotton organically, that is without pesticides and fertilizers, and therefore more sustainably. There are two leading organic certifications: Global Organic Textile Exchange (GOTS) and Organic Cotton Standard (OCS). Organic cotton only comprises around 0.33% of all cotton grown. Those chemicals never end up in runoff or the environment. However, organic cotton still requires large amounts of water. And, unfortunately, organic often means more expensive.

Initiatives such as “Better Cotton and Fairtrade Cotton focus on better land use, water practices, and labor standards but don’t have any proven environmental benefits.”17 Better Cotton is difficult to enforce and farmers who adopt it are not subsidized. Also, it allows for genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds.18 So this is not the best initiative out there.

Cotton Made in Africa has more than 30 brand members, which supports small growers and environmentally friendly growing practices in sub-Saharan Africa.19

Recycled or reclaimed cotton sounds promising as well, but it does have drawbacks. According to cottonworks.com, “the majority of recycled cotton is claimed through mechanical recycling. First, fabrics and materials are sorted by color. After sorting, the fabrics are run through a machine that shreds the fabric into yarn and further into raw fiber. This process is harsh and puts a great deal of strain on the fiber. It is not uncommon for fibers to break and entangle during shredding. The raw fiber is then spun back into yarns for reuse in other products. The quality of recycled fiber will never have quality values equal to the original fiber. Specifically, fiber length and length uniformity will be impacted, which will limit the end-use application.”20 

“Current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable.” -World Wildlife Fund21

Field of cotton with a green cotton harvester harvesting the crop, blue sky background.
Photo by Karl Wiggers on Unsplash.

Denim

Denim is mainly made from cotton. It takes between 2,000 and 2,900 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans, mainly because of dying and finishing treatments. “In the 1970s and 1980s, hip fashion people decided that denim shouldn’t look like denim anymore, and they came up with stone washing and acid washing.” These processes use pumice (stones) and sometimes bleach or other acidic chemicals. The water used for dying and finishing is not reused or recycled, which means it ends up in the environment.22

“To achieve a faux-worn effect, jeans are sandblasted, hand-sanded, or sprayed with chemicals by individuals who inhale the fumes each day.”23

We must also consider the cost of transport for something such as a pair of jeans. There is “a big cost in getting the cotton from (for example) Texas, where it’s grown, to Indonesia to be spun into fibers, to Bangladesh to be made into denim, and sent back to the U.S. to be sold.”24

There are programs that aim to reduce water in production, such as Levi’s Water<Less campaign. Their process reduces up to 96% of the water normally used in denim finishing, which is the final stage in making a pair of jeans. Levi’s claims to have saved more than 3 billion liters of water and recycled more than 1.5 billion liters of water.25 Always look at these programs with a critical eye, but if they are legit, try to buy clothing that uses sustainable methods.

Last, there is a recycling program for denim. The Blue Jeans Go Green program collects cotton-based denim and recycles it back to its original fiber state and transforms it into something new. The program claims to have kept more than 4.5 million pieces of old denim out of landfills.26 Denim is also a sustainable type of home and building insulation.

Man installing recycled denim insulation in a wall.
Photo by Rebecca Landis on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Bast-Plant Fibers

Bast-plant fibers include fabrics like linen, jute, hemp, and ramie. Linen is a textured fiber made from the flax plant. It is naturally hypoallergenic and is very breathable, making it a great textile for warm-weather clothes. Jute is a coarse natural plant fiber from the jute plant that is used to weave fabrics like burlap cloth. It is a popular textile to make rugs and burlap sacks. Hemp is durable, versatile, and moisture-resistant. Ramie creates strong fabrics that look similar to linen. 

These fibers are biodegradable, renewable, and sustainable. Bast fibers are collected from the outer third of the stem of a plant between the woody core and the thin outer layer. These make strong, durable, and breathable cloth.

These plants support regenerative farming, which improves the environment. “Plants used in bast fibre production are often great cover crops working in rotation with other crops, keeping the soil covered to minimize erosion and incorporating organic matter to improve soil fertility. A greater diversity of crops within a farming system not only improves soil quality, but minimizes plant diseases, further reducing the need for chemical applications.”27 They use less water, fertilizers, pesticides, and energy.

You can also buy these fabrics recycled or organic certified (see Additional Resources below). Organic means that chemical pesticides and fertilizers weren’t used in the production of the plant or fabric.28

Close-up of a Linen beige button down shirt.
Photo by Taisiia Shestopal on Unsplash.

Bamboo

While bamboo is a plant, marketers often tout it as “eco-friendly,” but manufacturers make bamboo fabric by chemically pulverizing plants and trees. This makes it unnatural. Since this fabric is full of harsh chemicals, I have chosen to include it in the synthetics part of this series (Part 5).

Read the Labels

Now that you know more about natural fabrics, you may find that reading labels will at least give you the basic information you’re looking for. Is the item you want to purchase made with 100% organic cotton, or a cotton blend? If it’s the latter, what does the blend consist of? Also, where was the item made? Was it made in a country with decent labor laws?

If there’s a fabric you’re not familiar with listed on the tag, look it up. Most people carry a smartphone with them, which offers the opportunity to look it up before making a purchase.

Overproduction

While plant-based fabrics come from the Earth, they are not always the best option because of the pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals that most producers use to grow them. But they are still better than plastic-based synthetic fabrics derived from fossil fuels.

Remember, the overproduction of all fabrics is the problem. Buy fewer but higher-quality articles when you can. Take good care of the clothing you do have, mend your clothing if you are able, and buy second-hand when you need to replace something.

In my next article, I’ll review types of animal-based fabrics. Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website, Better Cotton. Their mission is “to help cotton communities survive and thrive, while protecting and restoring the environment.”

Website, Global Textile Standard (GOTS). “GOTS is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. GOTS-certified final products may include fibre products, yarns, fabrics, clothes, home textiles, mattresses, personal hygiene products, as well as food contact textiles and more.” According to Elizabeth L. Cline, “GOTS is the most rigorous organic standard, as it covers not just the cultivation of the raw materials but the processing of the textiles as well.”29

Website, Organic Content Standard (OCS). They are “a voluntary global standard that sets the criteria for third-party certification of organic materials and chain of custody.”

Website, Oeko-Tex, “certifies that every component of the product, from the fabric to the thread and accessories, has been rigorously tested against a list of up to 350 toxic chemicals.”

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 2

Last updated on March 27, 2024.

Bales of textile recycling, colorful, Goodwill Outlet warehouse and retail store in St. Paul, MN.
Bales of textile recycling at the Goodwill Outlet warehouse and retail store in St. Paul, MN, April 2019. Photo by MPCA Photos on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Fast fashion is harming the environment, causing human workers to suffer and work for little pay, and creating a lot of waste. But just how much waste?

When we discard an article of clothing, we can sell it, give it to a friend, throw it in the trash, or donate it to a thrift store or resale shop. Reselling our clothing is ideal, as we can recoup some of the cost, and the clothing gets a second life. Children wear their clothes for a short time before outgrowing them, so often you can sell them online. Consignment stores buy clothes, but usually, only certain brands that often exclude fast fashion.

Most of us donate any clothing we can’t sell to the local Goodwill, another local thrift store, church, or local charity. However, there is so much donated clothing in the world now that we could clothe every human on the planet and still have leftover clothing. And that’s if production of new clothing stopped today!

“Buying so much clothing and treating it as if it is disposable, is putting a huge, added weight on the environment and is simply unsustainable.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Pile of children's clothes and shoes, colorful.
Pile of children’s clothes and shoes. Photo by Abby on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

A garbage truck full of clothes is taken to the landfill every second, where they produce methane as they rot.” -Georgina Stevens, Climate Action: The Future is in Our Hands

Textile and Clothing Waste in Landfills

Worldwide and annually, we throw away 92 million tons of textiles. In the US alone, “an estimated 11.3 million tons of textile waste – equivalent to 85% of all textiles – end up in landfills on a yearly basis. That’s equivalent to approximately 81.5 pounds per person per year and around 2,150 pieces per second countrywide.”1 The amount of clothing we dispose of has increased by 750% since 1960.2 Clothing does not biodegrade in landfills, just as most items will not biodegrade in a landfill. In addition, much of the clothing we produce is made from synthetic fabrics, made from plastic fibers (aka microfibers), which contaminate the water supply, our bodies, and the ocean.

“Textile waste is often overlooked when we think about plastic waste but it’s estimated that U.S. consumers throw away about 81 pounds of clothing every year, including large amounts of synthetic textiles made from plastics.” -Sandra Ann Harris, Say Goodbye to Plastic: A Survival Guide for Plastic-Free Living

Clothing Returns

Retailers are throwing away most of the items consumers return to the store. In the US, 2.6 million tons of returned clothing items ended up in landfills in 2020 alone. It often costs more for the company to put them back on the sales floor than it does to just throw them away. “Reverse logistics company Optoro also estimates that in the same year, 16 million tonnes of CO2 emissions were created by online returns in the US in 2020 – the equivalent to the emissions of 3.5 million cars on the road for a year.”3 Dumpster divers frequently find stacks of clothing in dumpsters behind clothing and department stores and post their finds on social media platforms.

Box with clothing donations, with "DONATE" written in red letters.
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Pexels.

Donated Clothing

“Our donated clothing goes on a journey of its own.” -Beth Porter, Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System

Unfortunately, fast fashion has outpaced the demand for second-hand clothing. Thrift stores cannot possibly sell all of the donated clothing, so textile recyclers and rag graders have grown to help charities process the excess and keep textiles out of landfills. About half of the clothing donated at major U.S. thrift stores is shipped internationally for textile recycling.4 But the number can be even higher if items don’t sell. “Up to 80 percent of all clothing donated to charity thrift stores ends up in textile recycling.”5

Huge thrift store full of full clothing racks.
Photo by arbyreed on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Goodwill, for example, conducts an initial sort at the retail store where items were dropped off or donated. Anything wet or mildewy is separated out because it is not sellable. Some of the best, clean, dry clothing items are put on the sales floor. Many Goodwill stores track how long each piece of clothing has been on the retail floor, and if an item doesn’t sell within four weeks, Goodwill removes it. They send the items on to a Goodwill outlet or a 99-cent Goodwill store. Prices are cheap to encourage purchasing and thus divert things from landfills. Clothing items that aren’t sold through those methods or through auctions go to textile recycling organizations.6

Shredded clothes, various colors, in boxes.
Shredded clothes, photo by Alexander Zvir on pexels.com.

Textile Recycling

“Globally, just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled. Much of the problem comes down to the materials our clothes are made from and inadequate technologies to recycle them.”7

Used textiles can be turned into rags for industrial use or processed into a soft fiber filling for furniture, home insulation, car soundproofing, etc. Goodwill indicates they “have seen estimates that textile recyclers divert about 2.5 billion pounds of used clothes from landfills.”8 But this is really just downcycling. Textile recycling isn’t working as a global solution because of the massive overabundance.

“Many types of clothing and footwear can be shredded and downcycled – with some shredding companies turning everything from shoes, handbags, baby clothes, and jackets into fibers. To be clear: No matter whether you donate to a charity, collection bin, thrift store, garment collection program, or most anywhere else, your clothes are likely going to end up in the global secondhand clothing trade or will be downcycled rather than recycled in the traditional sense. Less than 1 percent of clothing is recycled in the truest sense of the word, meaning broken down and turned back into new clothes. This desperately needs to change to make fashion more sustainable to solve the clothing waste crisis.” –Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good

Warehouse with hundreds of tons of clothing in Cambodia. Piles of textiles sorted by color, with people sorting in background.
Warehouse with hundreds of tons of clothing in Cambodia. Photo by Francois Le Nguyen on Unsplash.

The Global Second-Hand Market

There are too many clothes in the world.

There are so many used clothes in the world that even developing countries cannot use them all. Sellers in other countries will by bundles of second-hand clothing, hoping to resell them for a small profit. In Kenya, the word “mitumba,” refers to the bundles of plastic-wrapped packages of used clothing from people in wealthy countries. In Accra, Ghana, they call them “obroni wawu,” meaning ‘dead white man’s clothes.’

This has created massive piles of textiles and clothing across the globe, often in countries without organized waste management. This is devastating to local environments and negatively impacts the health of humans living in those environments. In northern Chile, about 59,000 tons of clothing arrive annually. Clothing merchants purchase some, but at least 39,000 tons end up in rubbish dumps in the desert.9

In 2020, “a mountain of cast-off clothing outside the Ghanaian capital city of Accra generated so much methane that it exploded; months later, it was still smoldering.”10 Market fires have become common in places that have too many goods and too much waste, all cast-offs from the western world. In other countries, the excess textile waste clutters the landscape, clogs up waterways, and pollutes the environment.

“Worldwide, we jettison 2.1 billion tons of fashion. Much of it is shunted to Africa, our rationalization being that the poorest continent needs free clothing.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis11

Worldwide Environmental Impact

There are increasingly fewer places to ship textile recycling and used clothing, as countries are full of them. This is creating a huge environmental problem. Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet and Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, wrote in a Bloomberg opinion piece:

“For decades, the donation bin has offered consumers in rich countries a guilt-free way to unload their old clothing. In a virtuous and profitable cycle, a global network of traders would collect these garments, grade them, and transport them around the world to be recycled, worn again, or turned into rags and stuffing. 

“Now that cycle is breaking down. Fashion trends are accelerating, new clothes are becoming as cheap as used ones, and poor countries are turning their backs on the secondhand trade. Without significant changes in the way that clothes are made and marketed, this could add up to an environmental disaster in the making…

“The rise of ‘fast fashion’ is thus creating a bleak scenario: The tide of secondhand clothes keeps growing even as the markets to reuse them are disappearing. From an environmental standpoint, that’s a big problem.”12

Pile of clothing, colorful.
Photo by Bicanski on Pixnio.

How You Can Help

“We cannot export our way out of our fast fashion addiction.” -Film: Textile Mountain – The Hidden Burden of Our Fashion Waste13

First, start thinking ‘slow fashion’ instead of fast fashion. Slow fashion refers to the method of producing clothing that takes into consideration all aspects of the supply chain.

Clothing Purchases

The second thing you can do is stop shopping! Most likely, you have more than enough clothes to wear for a long time.

When you do need something, ask yourself if it really needs to be new, or if you can find it second-hand. If it must be new, save up to buy that one classic, quality piece, instead of 10 cheap pieces that are low quality and super trendy. Be choosy so that there is no need to return the items.

Second-hand clothing is best the way to have a sustainable and affordable wardrobe. You can shop at consignment shops, thrift stores, clothing swaps, yard sales, and other resale shops. The online options are endless. “By making it easier and more accessible to shop used, resale is helping to reduce the water, chemicals, and energy we need to make new clothes…According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for every garment worn twice as long, its carbon footprint is reduced by 44 percent! And based on research conducted by thredUP, shopping secondhand extends the average life of a garment by 2.2 years.”14 

Try a capsule wardrobe like Project 333 that inspires dressing better, with less.

“Resale could eventually help reduce the culture of fast fashion and lead people away from disposable clothes.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good

Hand stitching a hole in a piece of gray and red clothing using orange thread.
Photo by Joseph Sharp on Unsplash.

Wear Clothing Longer

If you can purchase clothing that is more classic and less trendy, and buy higher quality clothing, you’ll be able to wear your clothing for much longer. “We get rid of about 60 percent of the clothing we buy within a year of its being made; we used to keep our clothing twice as long.” Wearing higher quality pieces longer would reduce textile waste greatly.

Try Mending

If you can sew, this is the best way to extend the life of your current wardrobe. Hemming, repairing tears and holes, darning, replacing buttons, and simple embroidery are all basic techniques in mending. You don’t even have to own a sewing machine. You can find inspiration in books and countless online video tutorials. Experiment with different techniques and ideas. Some even dye light clothing if they’ve got something with an ugly stain.

If you don’t know how to sew, there are so many ways you can learn! Find books, a family member, online classes/tutorials, or in-person classes at a local sewing shop.

If you don’t want to sew, find a good tailor that can make repairs and adjustments. Or a friend that sews on the side for extra income, as long as you’ve seen their work first.

Outdoor charity bin with bags of donations surrounding it, looking like trash.
If it looks like trash, it will probably be treated as such. Photo by Anna Gregory on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Getting Rid of Clothes

“You may think, Well, I donate my clothes, or I heard about a program that takes jeans and makes them into insulation, or What about recycled textiles or all of the clothes we send overseas in form of aid? All of those things happen, but not to the extent that you think, and sometimes with surprisingly negative consequences.” -Tatiana Schlossberg15

Following are the do’s and don’t’s of getting rid of clothing.

Never throw your clothes in the trash (unless it’s just really ripped and stained, or otherwise totally ruined and not able to be reused for rags).

Before dropping clothing off at a thrift store or other charity, try to find a friend or family member who might want those clothes. Or try selling them online or at a local consignment sale or shop.

If you donate, donate better by following these best practices:

While many charities that accept used clothing work with textile recyclers, not all do. Ask your local charities and thrift stores if they recycle or landfill unsellable clothing before donating.

Make sure items are clean and dry. Empty pockets, and remove pet hair and lint. Tie shoes together so they don’t get separated. Mend items before donating so they don’t get landfilled. Donate when the stores are accepting donations so that items don’t get ruined by the weather.16 

Try donating them at strategic times.17 Donate winter items to a homeless shelter or organization at the beginning of winter. Homeless organizations almost always need good shoes. Donate clothing during a post-disaster local drive. For bedding and towels, check with local animal shelters as oftentimes, they can use these items! Take the time to seek out donation drives for specific items. That way, organizations are far more likely to use your donated items instead of throwing them away.

“If a friend has always commented on how much they love your jacket, or your sister has always coveted that vintage bag, now is the time to redistribute them to an eager recipient. It’s entirely your choice whether you want to give pieces away or sell them, but doing so within your community reduces the  fashion miles’ involved in shipping them around the country or across the globe.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe18

Watch Out for Greenwashing

‘Take-back’ programs or in-store clothing recycling programs are sometimes a form of greenwashing. “These schemes allow customers to drop off unwanted items in ‘bins’ in the brands’ stores. But it’s been highlighted that only 0.1% of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fibre.”19 There are some brands that actually do good things with collected items, but you have to research to know which ones.

Interior of a Salvation Army thrift store, with lots of clothing racks.
Photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC0 1.0).

I hope this article has helped you figure out to buy less clothing, make the clothing you have last longer, and how to donate and discard better. For my next article, we’ll explore different types of fabrics, both natural and synthetic. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website, Project 333

Film, Textile Mountain – The Hidden Burden of Our Fashion Waste.

Article, “Dead white man’s clothes,” by Linton Besser, ABC News Australia, updated

www.weardonaterecycle.org

Website, Fashion Detox Challenge

Article, “How to Buy Clothes That Are Built to Last,” by Kendra Pierre-Louis, New York Times, September 25, 2019

Article, “13 Brands Using Take-Back Schemes to Recycle Waste Responsibly,” by Solene Rauturier, Good On You, January 6, 2022.

Footnotes: